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After almost six years of labor organizing, health care workers at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital begin voting today on whether or not they should be represented by a union.

The two-day vote -- in part a showdown between the Service Employees International Union and the break-away National Union of Healthcare Workers -- could affect almost 700 employees at Memorial Hospital, including radiology and respiratory technicians, nurse's aides, housekeepers, dietary workers and other positions.

"I'm so excited," said Melissa Bosanco, a care partner in Memorial's ontology unit and a supporter of SEIU's rival union. She's a member of NUHW's organizing committee.

Bosanco, who was laid off in February but was hired back as a relief worker, said she hopes union representation will earn employees a greater voice in critical hospital decisions, such as changes to staffing and patient care.

"I'm really happy to work here," Bosanco said. "I still want to work here, but I know that with union representation, we really could have a hand in making this a great place to be, with better care for patients."

The vote today and Friday comes eight months after the NUHW and its supporters successfully filed a petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board.

But shortly after the petition was filed, the SEIU's affiliate, Oakland-based United Healthcare Workers West, filed "blocking challenges" with the NLRB, delaying the vote. Despite unresolved legal challenges, the NLRB decided last August that workers could go forward with an election.

SEIU, which filed a petition to become an intervener, will appear as an option on today's secret ballot. The nearly 700 workers voting will have the opportunity to choose one of the following: being represented by NUHW, being represented by SEIU-UHW or not having any union representation.

Before this year, NUHW supporters at Memorial had been working with SEIU's Oakland-based local. But when key UHW leaders splintered off and formed their own union, significant support among local workers followed suit.

As today's vote neared, charges of improper labor campaigning have been leveled by both unions and management.

NUHW leaders charge that St. Joseph Health System-Sonoma County, which runs both Memorial and Petaluma Valley hospitals, has been waging a campaign of intimidation against its workers in recent weeks. They say hospital supervisors have been having "one-on-one" meetings with workers in an effort to influence their vote.

The charge has brought criticism from local social justice leaders such as Monsignor John Brenkle, the pastor of St. Helena Catholic Church.

"Our main concern is that the organizing process not be fraught with intimidation or with misinformation," said Brenkle, one of several community leaders who formed what they call the Fair Election Oversight Commission. Other members include Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Veronica Jacobi, Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council and JoAnn Consiglieri a local marriage and family therapist who is a former Sister of St. Joseph of Orange, of which St. Joseph Health System is a ministry.

But St. Joseph executives said efforts to share "fact-based information" with workers have not been coercive or forced and have been in part a response to questions raised by workers themselves.

"We did not have mandatory one-on-one meetings with employees to discuss union organizing. We absolutely did not," said Debra Miller, St. Joseph's vice president of human resources in Sonoma County.

Miller said "15 to 18" voluntary, informational meetings were held at various sites at the 279-bed hospital campus. No record was kept of who attended the meetings and attendance was not required, she said.

Miller said hospital managers have met with individual employees they supervise to answer workers' questions.

"We have had absolutely no forced conversations and no forced dialogue," she said.

In an interview Tuesday, Memorial Hospital CEO Kevin Klockenga said the hospital would rather workers choose the no union option on the ballot, but that whatever decision is made would be respected.

"We prefer to have a direct relationship with our employees," Klockenga said. "Relationships tend to be stronger and better that way over time."

Miller said that between its two hospitals in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, St. Joseph administration officials "work collaboratively" with three labor unions that represent close to 900 employees, including 740 nurses at Memorial Hospital and 170 nurses at Petaluma Valley Hospital, and 20 engineers at Memorial.

"It's a 20-plus year history" of working with unions, Miller said. "The nurses union at Memorial was voted in in the mid-1980s."

The voting today and Friday will be held in three blocks of time, in the morning, afternoon and evening. NLRB staff will be on hand as employees go into a room with their unsigned ballots.

If a majority of the voters -- more than 50 percent -- side with a union, that union wins. If neither union wins a majority and the "no union" option fails, there could be run-off vote at a later date.

"There's the possibility that the voting part of this will not be over on Dec. 18," Miller said.

When combined with the nurses, the unionization of these service and technical workers would mean the "vast majority" of the workers who provide care for patients would be unionized, Miller said.

About 300 to 400 administrators, managers, social workers and other professionals would not be covered by any union, Miller estimated. The hospital does not employ doctors, who are unaffected by the agreement.

If a new union is voted in, Klockenga maintains it will have no effect on patient care and no immediate impact on the institution's finances.

There are administrative differences between how unionized and non-unionized employees are managed by the hospital, but those differences have nothing to do with patient care, he said.

For its part, SEIU-UHW strongly believes it would be the best choice for St. Joseph workers.

Adriana Surfas, an SEIU-UHW spokeswoman, said SEIU would bring 75 years or organizing experience to workers at Memorial Hospital, as well as vast labor resources.

"We have been at the hospital talking about what being a member of SEIU-UHW would mean to them," Surfas said. "This year we've already negotiated around 75 contracts, secured wage increases, back-pay . . . we have really provided for members. We think that SEIU-UHW is the strongest and best option for these workers."

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.